At the end of July, we will know who the next Prime Minister is, and we should have a good idea about what some of their priorities will be for this country. The main focus of the recent debates between the candidates has understandably been on Brexit, this issue has dominated the time and attention of ministers for over three years. Brexit is important, but I've been particularly interested in hearing about the other policy areas the candidates will focus on too.
Going forward, there is a real opportunity to put children at the heart of all policy and spending decisions and to give our vital public services the investment and support they sorely need. For children's services there is plenty on our wish list, but I would urge the next Prime Minister (whoever that may be) to give particular attention to these pressing issues:
- Child poverty is rising. Currently, four million children live in poverty, two thirds of whom are from working households and it is estimated that this will soon rise to five million. Recently, Professor Philip Alston's damning report on poverty in Britain brought the bleak reality for many children and families to the fore. Behind each of the statistics are children and families going hungry, having to rely on foodbanks for their next meal and making tough decisions between keeping warm or paying the bills. This is not acceptable, nor is it inevitable. A national focus on tackling both the symptoms and root causes of poverty is long overdue, and the new Prime Minister must take the opportunity to lead this endeavour from the front as a matter of urgency.
- Increased political and press attention on serious youth violence and knife crime in our communities has resulted in extra funding, campaigns being rolled out and programmes developed to help tackle this issue. This is welcome and I am pleased that the current Prime Minister has acknowledged we cannot "arrest" our way out of the problem, but there is a need to go further than the actions already being taken if we are to keep our children and young people safe on our streets. Treating serious youth violence as a public health issue is a must. We need to put our efforts into tackling the causes, not just the symptoms of violence through multi-agency working and learning lessons from each other about what has worked well in other areas but also what hasn't.
- We know that prevention is better than cure and investing in early help and preventative services is the most effective way to stop the problems children and families face from reaching crisis point. 30 years ago, The Children Act 1989 received Royal Assent and this important piece of legislation included within it preventative duties for local authorities which have never been sufficiently funded. Local authorities must fund statutory child protection services where need exists, even if there is no room in the budget to do so. As a result we are increasingly having to divert funding away from non-statutory parts of the system such as children's centres and youth services that support children and families earlier. The Troubled Families Programme has shown us the rewards early help can bring and recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that children's centres improve health outcomes for children and consequently relieve pressure on the NHS. However, the government's current approach to funding local authorities doesn't support the sort of investment we would like to see in early help and prevention. If we are truly ambitious about children and families then we will do everything we can to support them at the earliest possible opportunity, as and when needs arise.
- I suppose the common thread running through this blog is the issue of funding, or lack of it. Since 2010, local authority budgets have been cut in half but the level and complexity of need in our community has not. Pressures on the SEND system and an increasing number of duties for us in relation to children, which are not always fully funded only exacerbates the pressures we face. Without a sustainable and long-term funding settlement for children and their families we cannot make the sort of difference we want to in their lives.
So, my plea to the next Prime Minister is - please invest in our children and their families and the full range of services they rely on. Not only is this the right thing to do but it makes absolute sense for the future of our country.
Jenny Coles is director of children's services at Hertfordshire County Counci. Thos blog first appeared on the ADCS website